TV and the Internet: when world’s collide – web TV

That comet Halle-Bopp is causing disturbing happenings down on earth. Top PC industry players have been making moves likely to bring about a technology melt-down of Internet, television and desktop computing.

Quite when the worlds began colliding is hard to pinpoint but new proposals by Intel, Compaq, and Microsoft seek to pump Internet data within broadcast television programming. They intend to use television’s ‘vertical blanking interval’ to send packets of data which TV set top boxes and suitably equipped PCs will be able to pick up. Already the proposed ‘open standard’ has blown a crater in US TV industry’s almost settled, though half-good, plans for a digital TV standard.

On the surface what is on offer seems little different from the promise of digital television. Should it become real, and late next year is when they’re saying it will, producers will be able to make TV programmes with a ‘back’ channel of information, advertising and products for sale. The vision is that a sports event might offer facts about favourite players, while a quiz show would allow viewers to play along with the contestants. As someone had to say, “TV will never be the same again”.

That kind of talk always hints of hot air but the proposals arrive bang alongside Microsoft parting with money to acquire WebTV Networks in the US. The 20 month-old company went live before last Christmas offering Internet services through a regular television. A set top box, made under licence by Sony and Philips, plugs into the phone line as viewers switch channels to pick up e-mail and surf the Web using a remote control. Already they have shifted 30,000 of the sub-$500 boxes and are projecting 200,000 by the year’s end.

While the box features a well rated 33.6 K modem, unlike a PC it cannot store much data, nor can it handle ordinary, unmodified Web pages. Were it to be introduced in the UK, where local calls are not free, it’s hard to see the idea of running up a phone bill ever catching on. But for Microsoft who forked out some $425 million dollars for the company, the popularity of the technology is no doubt immaterial, WebTV is one step towards convergence: what we have a serious sign of the personal computer moving into the living room and the notion of Internet for the masses.

There is yet more as several TV manufacturers plan to build Web browsers into their TV sets. MediaLink, another US company has found an inexpensive way to encode data, such as Web addresses, into video so that a broadcast or recorded programmes might launch some of the ‘back channel’ content without exhorting viewers to click this or that.

From the PC corner, Compaq and Intel have been talking about producing a ‘PC-TV hybrid’ which links a PC with a large screen TV, and high-fi audio. This of course will cost money, as will next year’s first run of digital sets – yours for a mere $2500. People are saying that what will really encourage buyers is not so much the added interactivity as the enhanced viewing experience – though predictions talk of only a million US viewers buying at this price.

Things get interesting back on the PC. Using the Microsoft approach – to mix Internet in with broadcast – the cost of upgrading a PC to view television is an estimated $150 – making the entry cost to digital even lower. While the upgrade doesn’t handle high resolution HDTV signals, in theory, with tens of million of PCs out there, that price would create a huge and immediate audience for enhanced broadcasting. However, we can well wonder how many will watch TV on their PCs.

The software elements of metamorphosing PCs into TVs will be built into future releases of Windows and Window NT5. Coupled with the TV tuner upgrade, Microsoft say that there will be components to allow PCs to respond to remote control devices and for example, search program schedules electronically.

Included too will be the ‘push’ technology mentioned last month. Using ‘push’, viewers can have the Internet data they want delivered to them instead of going off to hunt for it. Set beside the ideas of ‘NetChannel’ an Internet content provider set on providing material customised for the viewer some mind boggling ideas – way beyond Web access and e-mail may be on their way. NetChannel’ also recently acquired ViewCall America producer of On-TV – a personal Internet TV channel.

By using the broadcast network, there is a major the benefit of very fast data delivery, up to 30 megabits per second and many times the speed of today’s modem capability.

Clearly, as that comet zooms off, all sorts of things start happening down here. It again seems like a good time to shuffle shares and a bad time to jump space ships. And a health warning is due too: if all this doesn’t disappear in a trail of vapour, there’s going to be plenty of intrigue to make it worth staying on the planet.

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